War Eagle Extra

Niziolek: Bowled over? Reaching six wins will be challenge for inconsistent Auburn team

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn's Gus Malzahn calls plays during overtime of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas won 54-46 in four overtimes.
Auburn's Gus Malzahn calls plays during overtime of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas won 54-46 in four overtimes. AP Photo

Auburn’s national championship aspirations are long gone. The Tigers desire to be among the SEC elite this year has vanished.

The steady decline of Auburn’s ambitions this season only has one casualty left -- making one of the 41 FBS bowl games.

Auburn (4-3) needs to win two of its final five games to reach the magic qualifying mark of six wins. Its remaining schedule features games against Ole Miss (6-2), at Texas A&M (5-2), Georgia (5-2), Idaho (3-4) and Alabama (7-1).

The Tigers head into Saturday’s matchup against the Bulldogs as touchdown underdogs, and they likely won’t be favored again until they host Idaho.

Outside of the game against the Vandals, there’s no easy path for Auburn to get that sixth victory taking into consideration the strength of the Tigers’ schedule – ranked 24 in the country by ESPN.com’s Football Power Index – and the way they have played this season. 

Auburn’s own struggles might be the more significant obstacle, but one the coaching staff hasn’t been all that willing to acknowledge.

“They’re going to continue to fight and continue to get better,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Our coaches are in it with them, so that’s where we’re at, and we will continue to get better. I felt like we did in most phases last week. Even though we got beat at the very end, there were some real positives that we can take from that game and that we can use for the rest of the season.”

Malzahn’s weekly “get better” promise isn’t going to have any of Auburn’s remaining SEC rivals shaking in their boots.

The Tigers have the worst defense in the SEC by a fair margin that also ranks as one of the worst defenses in the country.

Auburn’s offense has made moderate improvements under Sean White, a lack of turnovers has helped, but they are still prone to prolonged stretches of futility as evidence by a woeful first half against Arkansas.

Can the Tigers avoid a similar letdown in coming weeks?

With younger players filling significant roles across the offense and defense, Auburn has played with a startling lack of consistency, specifically early in games.

“We’ve had some slow starts in a couple of games so we have to figure out a way to start fast,” defensive back Jonathan Jones said.

Jones is one of the seniors who has maintained a positive outlook this season, and rejected comparisons to the way Auburn finished in 2014 and 2012.

But Auburn is in real danger of not making a bowl for the first time since the 2012 season when it finished 3-9 overall, and 0-8 in the SEC.

The only other time the Tigers failed to make a bowl in the past decade was Tommy Tubberville’s last season in 2008. The team started out 4-1, but lost six of their last seven games – five conference matchups – to miss the six win mark.

Comparisons to 2008 might be more accurate, but either way Auburn isn't eager to be on a list with any of those under-performing teams from years past.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

  Comments